Although Portland is only 160 miles away, sometimes it seems like the city's musical preferences are light years apart from Seattle's. This weekend marked the 10th annual MusicFest NW--an amazing city-wide music festival that takes over 20 bars, clubs, and outdoor spaces around Portland--and the lineup was impressive. (For example, the Smashing Pumpkins played the Wonder Ballroom, a club about the size of Neumos.) Along with a ton of Portland acts and indie hit makers, a number of Seattle bands also played the four-day event--and Portland's reaction to some of Seattle's up-and-coming acts wasn't what I expected.
Paige Richmond Shabazz Palaces owned Jimmy Mak's jazz club in Portland's Pearl District. Too bad that fewer than 100 people saw them.
Here's the best of Friday and Saturday night, including some non-Seattle bands:
People Eating People, 9 p.m. Friday.
People Eating People, 9 p.m. Friday.Nouela Johnston and crew played Portland's Mississippi studios, a venue that's unfortunately far from the city's downtown core, which is where most of MFNW takes place. (It's about the distance from the Tractor from the Comet.) Maybe that's why the crowd was pretty thin when People Eating People took the stage. But the people that did show up were engaged in Johnston's songs: after her vocal acrobatics on the chorus to "Supernatural Help," they burst into applause mid-song. I couldn't help, though, but compare it to PEP's performance at Bumbershoot. When Johnston performed "Rain, Rain" at the Sky Church, the packed crowd clapped along with her. No such reaction from Portlanders, and I can only assume many of them were hearing PEP for the first time at MFNW.
Tallest Man on Earth, 11:55 p.m., Friday. Kristian Matsson is one of the only solo artists I've seen that manages to sound like a full band while strumming an acoustic guitar. Matsson controls pretty much every moment of his songs, from moving the tempo to extending pauses between bars. It's hard to imagine how any additional instrument or musician could make his live version of "I Won't Be Found" any better.
The Head and the Heart, 9 p.m., Saturday. I heard no truer statement at MFNW that when The Head and the Heart sang, "We're well on our way," the repeated chorus to "Heaven Go Easy on Me." This band's reach has definitely extended past Seattle and grabbed a hold of Portland. While Berbati's Pan wasn't packed, there was enough body heat in the room to raise the temperature 10 degrees. People knew the album, as the crowd audibly sang the chorus to "Down in the Valley." And the band's performance was on point: on "Rivers and Roads," their barnburning last song, every member stood up--including the keyboardist and drummer--and stomped out the beat. The only downside: violin player Charity Thielen told the crowd that they'd "fallen in love with Portland" and seriously wanted to move there.
Menomena, 10 p.m., Saturday. In Portland, Menomena is king. The Crystal Ballroom was wall-to-wall with people standing shoulder to shoulder. The band played against the Smashing Pumpkins and had no problem selling out the venue--and leaving fans lined up outside, waiting for a chance to get in, one at a time, as show-goers left the venue. I've never heard a crowd go as crazy for a saxophone as they did when Justin Harris played his.
Shabazz Palaces, 11:55 p.m., Saturday. I was a little confused that Shabazz Palaces (along with openers THEESatisfication and Champagne Champagne) performed at Jimmy Mak's, a jazz club with rows of seats and tables. It felt kind of like the hip-hop duo was a lounge act at a dinner club. But I totally forgot about this concern once Shabazz Palaces started performing: Ishmael "Ish" Butler and Tendai "Baba" Maraire's ability to deconstruct a beat--throwing off the rhythm and finding it again, all within the duration of a single song--is mesmerizing. They moved from one song to the next, without pausing, and seemed completely absorbed in their music, at times oblivious to the audience. Songs like "Blastit" felt totally improvised and super controlled, all at once. Maybe 100 people showed up for the set, but they loved every second: the crowd bounced to the music and cheered for an encore, which the Palaces obliged. It was easily my favorite set of the weekend.